Dick Tracy (1937)
Film review #381
Directors: Alan James, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: F.B.I. G-man Dick Tracy is on the trail of the criminal gang known as the Spider Ring. They have invented a flying fortress called The Wing and it is Tracy’s job to find a way to stop it and the gang’s evil schemes. Alongside this, he is also trying to find his brother Gordon, who has gone missing, and unbeknown to Dick, has been brainwashed by the Spider Ring to do their bidding…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy is a 1937 movie serial based on the comic book character of the same name. The serial stars, unsurprisingly, Dick Tracy, who is a “G-man” working for the F.B.I. investigating crimes, specifically trying to bring down the criminal gang known as the Spider Ring, who leave the mark of a spider on their victims before they kill them. Dick also has to find out what has happened to his brother, who has gone missing, and unbeknown to him has been captured by the Spider Ring and been brainwashed into becoming their servant. The serial’s story unfolds across a lengthy fifteen chapters, with the usual serial shenanigans taking place. Despite the length, the serial does a good job of keeping things interesting, and has a number of mini-arcs in the story to keep things varied. Dick Tracy’s character as a criminal investigator plays a strong role in the story, as he is actually investigating the crimes and following the evidence, rather than just showing up and getting into a fistfight like a lot of these serials.
The action scenes are also well varied, with their being chases across land, sea and air. The aerial scenes are probably the most interesting, as they are fast-paced and have plenty of stunts. The real sci-fi element of the serial comes in the form of The Wing: a large plane that resembles a flying fortress crossed with a stealth plane. It is the sort of thing that would not have been seen before when it was released, so it certainly gives the serial some originality. While The Wing plays a large role in the earlier chapters, it appears less frequently in the later ones, which is a shame since it probably had some more potential, but there’s plenty of other things going on so it doesn’t feel like the serial runs out of steam.
As mentioned, Dick Tracy’s role as a criminal investigator gives him plenty to do, and separates him from the similar white-male leads of these type of serials by giving him a unique character trait. The cast of supporting characters is quite large, but they all serve a purpose and you can tell them apart. The comedic relief in the form of the young Junior and his guardian McGurk aren’t overplayed, and provide just enough of a contribution to the story without being distracting. The villains, including the leader of the Spider Ring known as “The Lame One” are also well varied, including the rogue doctor Moloch who performs the operation to brainwash Gordon Tracy (who also has his face changed, which is rather pointless as none of the heroes see his face that would recognise him). The Lame One’s identity is kept a mystery until the end, but if you follow the serial closely, you can probably tell who it is, and it doesn’t act as too much of a revelation. Nevertheless, an overall interesting cast that are recognisable and add different dynamics to the serial.
The special effects of the film are pretty good for the time, and while a lot of the plane stunts are done with models, they are still convincing. A lot of the aerial stunts are pretty implausible and flying the face of physics, but given that cinema goers in 1937 would probably have not been in a plane (or maybe even seen one), it’s not going to break the immersion. Overall, Dick Tracy manages to take the typical aspects of the serial format and excel with them: the action is varied, the story is full of drama and suspense, the characters are well-defined, and there’s plenty of content to keep viewers coming back to the theatre every week.